SFX’s latest one-off special issue is SFX COLLECTION: HORROR . In the shops now, it’s a celebration of all things that go bump in the night, guaranteed to delight all horror fans. You can find full details of all the contents here (opens in new tab) .
Amongst the many features is Horror’s Hidden Treasures, in which various horror luminaries – directors, screenwriters, novelists, comics scribes... – recommend their favourite little-known or under-appreciated horror films, books and comics. Horror novelist Bill Hussey is one of the contributors, and was so inspired that he wrote much more about his favourites than we could fit onto the printed page, requiring some cruel pruning. So here – with thanks again to Bill – we present the full, unedited version. Take it away Bill...
NAOMI'S ROOM by Jonathan Aycliffe
Jonathan Aycliffe is the alias of Denis MacEoin, an Islamic scholar who also writes thrillers under the name Daniel Easterman. During the 1990s Aycliffe penned a series of supernatural novels that I can only describe as exercises in dread. These are stories heavily influenced by the bookish terrors of MR James, and yet there is a glorious nastiness in Aycliffe’s work that goes beyond the pure Jamesian sense of unease.
In Aycliffe’s first book, Naomi’s Room (1991), Charles and Laura Hillenbrand are a young, happily married couple whose world is made complete by their beautiful daughter, Naomi. When the child is abducted during a Christmas Eve shopping trip, Charles and Laura’s world is torn apart. They pray for her safe return and, in Naomi’s old nursery, their prayers are eventually answered…
Like all of Aycliffe’s subsequent chillers, Naomi’s Room has the power to nail you to your chair, compelling you to devour the book in one sitting. Disquiet mounts with every teasing hint of the horror to come, and yet this is not a flimsy potboiler but a story driven by its characters - characters you come to care about as they hurtle quietly into the darkness. Like James, Aycliffe is a master of imbuing small details with ominous significance – Charles refuses to touch the length of blue ribbon lying outside his dead daughter’s bedroom door because "It might still have been warm" – but what makes the darkness of Naomi’s Room particularly effective is that the creepy antiquarian horror of James is juxtaposed with a more visceral form of terror. In the secret, blood-splattered heart of Charles and Laura’s house we find a ghost that does more with his chains than just clank them…
As with many horror novels there are elements of Naomi’s Room that seem borrowed from other sources – the central character’s paranormal infection has echoes of Jack Torrance’s experience at the Overlook Hotel; the introduction of the Daily Mirror photographer, whose pictures contain eerie images, probably owes something to David Warner’s character in The Omen – but for the most part this is bleak, terrifying and original storytelling. Mix in a horribly sadistic bogeyman with a great USP (he watches his victims with his "little eyes") and we have a masterpiece of the macabre. Whispers In The Dark, The Vanishment, The Matrix, and other ghost stories were to follow but, on the strength of Naomi’s Room alone, Aycliffe deserves to be trumpeted as a master of the genre. It is a pity then that this book and several other Aycliffe titles are now out of print.
The 1970s saw the heyday of the American TV Movie Of The Week. In the horror and thriller category we had big hitters like Duel, directed by an unknown and (strange to the modern eye) beardless Steven Spielberg, as well as those fabled chillers Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, Trilogy Of Terror and The Night Stalker, still spoken of in hushed tones by the baby boomers who saw them first-hand. Hailing from the same studio (ABC) as its better-known-brothers comes the overlooked gem that is Crowhaven Farm.
I first saw Crowhaven when I was about eleven years old. After catching a crackly trailer on BBC One I begged my parents to let me stay up and watch the movie. A sleepless night followed as, from the shadowy edges of my room, I heard the steady and relentless click-click-click of bricks being piled, one on top of the other… Twenty years on, it's a gentler movie than I remember, sometimes even downright homely, but it still has moments of real unease.
Crowhaven tells the story of Maggie and Ben Porter (Hope Lange and Paul Burke, the former channelling the spirit of a bedevilled Mia Farrow throughout) who, after inheriting the titular property, decide to rebuild their shaky marriage in this quaint corner of New England – appropriately enough, a mere stone’s throw from Salem. Little does Maggie know that her (distant) past is about to catch up with her. Eerieness abounds on the farm: voices raging in the night; a murderous orphan child straight out of Village Of The Damned; visions of witches in buckled hats and wide-collar shirts; and, most unsettling of all, Maggie’s persistent dream of being placed under a battered wooden plank and crushed slowly to death.
Crowhaven is a magpie of a movie, borrowing shamelessly from a number of big-screen chillers, most obviously Rosemary’s Baby, which had made a massive impact two years previously. But although it's guilty of cinematic sticky fingers it also has touches of originality. Like a lot of those old TV Movies, Crowhaven had a miniscule budget which in the end worked to its advantage – there are no crass special effects here, the chills being conveyed by (generally) solid acting, effective use of sound and a few strangely disturbing low camera angles. The "nice practicality" with which the reincarnated Puritan villains go about their grisly revenge is also refreshing, and seems to foreshadow the matter-of-fact fanaticism of the inhabitants of a certain Scottish island. Indeed, like the ending of The Wicker Man, which hit screens three years later, the breathless, crushing climax of Crowhaven – click-click-click – is filmed in the full glare of daylight and is rendered infinitely more unnerving by the lack of shadows and ambiguity.
Crowhaven Farm is far from perfect – sometimes the acting descends into soap opera territory – but for its climatic scene alone it remains a fine piece of televisual diabolism.
Click here to read horror novelist David Moody’s hidden treasures.
Bill Hussey’s Through A Glass, Darkly and The Absence are available now. The first book of his Young Adult supernatural thriller series Witchfinder will be released by OUP in March.